David Hepworth’s written a brutal and honest assessment of the difficulties anyone putting a record out just now has in getting the attention of “taste makers” who can propel it from almost-ran to hit. He has a particularly graphic way of illustrating these difficulties, which I’ll quote from here:
As I write this I have at my left hand a copy of Burning Spears 1976 album “Man In The Hills”. Ive actually only just heard this record. Until recently I never went further than “Marcus Garvey”. Anyway “Man In The Hills” is brutally good. ?I keep it close at hand as my Control Sample. Not far behind it is a copy of “Revolver” and Nick Lowes “The Old Magic”, both of which could easily be Control Samples.
The presence of the Control Sample means that I have to decide whether Id rather spend the next forty minutes of my life reaching a further level of intimacy with something I know is worth the investment or risk it on something untried from my huge great box of new stuff right, most of which, I have learned through experience, will never be fit to dust the shoes of those three great records. Thats why lots of the time the Control Sample wins.
I had three responses to this, as someone with a new thing out there (in my case, a novel) which needs the oxygen of attention to survive.
Response 1: AAARRGHHH. Because what this seems to describe is, if you like, a Tragedy of Attention; a world in which the recent cultural past silts up our appetite for “new stuff”, a world in which there isn’t in fact any “new stuff” at all, just spins on the “old stuff”, a world in which every new piece of heralded stuff?just kills the future. To repeat: AAARRGHHH.
Response 2: Hepworth is a man of gargantuan experience in the music industry, well into his fourth decade of responding to and writing about music. He is, without doubt, my favourite music writer (in fact, I sometimes think he’s my favourite writer, full stop). But I wonder if he also has a different attitude to new stuff because?of that experience. The fact is, he does have four decades-worth of fine music in his head, but a younger reviewer does not. So perhaps that possible younger viewer is not comparing, for instance, Laura Marling with Joni Mitchell. Perhaps, for them, Laura Marling is fresh and new and sparkling. Or at least, more potentially interesting as a “current” Joni Mitchell; our?Joni Mitchell.
Response 3: Despite being one of the most clued-up “old media” executives when it comes to thinking about the digital world, Hepworth is pretty much describing the old world of review opportunities in a limited number of outlets, when a decent review or a Record of the Week slot could make a career. Those slots are still essential and potentially career-making, but they’re no longer the whole story. There are more independent channels and there are more, far more, opportunies for word of mouth to be amplified. The English Monster, for instance, got a cracking?review in Londonist, the independent London blog. Is that more valuable than, say, a review in the Times? Almost certainly not, but it’s getting there. And meanwhile on Twitter people can say they love something and be retweeted and retweeted and be getting attention from tens of thousands of other people within minutes.
I’m not arguing with Hepworth – I would not presume. But I do think the world isn’t quite as brutal as he suggests.
But I’m also aware of the obvious comeback to this happy-clappy techno-utopia stuff: well, of course, I would?say that, wouldn’t I?